January 15th 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the Biafra war. The three year-long (1967-1970) failed struggle by Nigeria’s south-eastern region to secede from the Federation remains to this day one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent African history. Due to the hitherto unknown extent of suffering among the civilian population, with the estimates of hunger victims ranging from several hundred thousand to over a million dead, it also saw one of largest internationally coordinated efforts of humanitarian assistance ever undertaken.
For Germany, today the world’s second largest provider of humanitarian help, Biafra became a turning point. With the German Foreign Office just having been put in charge of this matter in 1968 with an initial modest annual budget of about 1,5 million in today’s Euro equivalent, administered by one single official (!), it saw a continuous increase in the following decades. In 2019, the German government’s budget for humanitarian assistance and conflict prevention reached a record high of 1,98 billion Euro.
Biafra did not only change the scale of Germany’s humanitarian assistance - it also shaped the way it is delivered. The extent of the humanitarian catastrophe in the conflict zone blockaded by Nigeria’s armed forces required close cooperation with the churches and other non-governmental organizations who could still get access to the trapped civilians, and with the International Red Cross and the UN agencies. The experiences gained in the Biafra war have since guided Germany’s assistance efforts in other conflict zones around the world.